Gadgets and NaNoWriMo

I got a new phone in August. I hate it. And I hate it because I like it so much.

What did we do before mobiles, tablets and their ilk? When we were on our buses and trains, when we were waiting for friends or our families, how did we pass the time? Were we perpetually bored?

I hate my phone because instead of spending quality time in my head I play chess or read Twitter. I don’t use my eyes as much – spend less time playing with architecture or admiring nature, or people-watching or dreaming. Several scientific papers – no, I can’t quote them – have suggested that we overstimulate our children and that being bored is an important part of growing up to be a human being. Now I worry we’re losing that as adults.

Because being in our own heads allows us to dream. It allows us to create stories, to make connections – a form of meditation where we can enter a state almost like sleep. Quiet time, where we do nothing, is a precious resource. It’s where we get to know our characters both real and fictional, where we plan and sketch theories and refine and abandon them. I’m a landscape historian by education, and my eternal pleasure is to spot old hedgerows and trackways and try to trace them back through time: to see where a t-junction used to be a crossroads; to spot old manor-houses and lodges and…

And so on. The point is that we’re willingly giving it up. And this time we sacrifice is also the best time for thinking of new stories. Writing-time isn’t just that spent on your computer or with your note-pads: it’s also the time we spend seeing and drifting through time, into wild fantasies and lurid, sweat-drenched nightmares.

Modern technology is fantastic. It’s given us so much, freed us up for more and more time to do what we actually like to do. But don’t let it steal your ability to dream.

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It’s been a quiet time here at Writerly Towers. After the highs and lows of September, getting baited by publishers only to see them withdraw the hook, and the new first drafts, and all this… activity, I seem to have been swept into the Doldrums. Becalmed upon an ocean lacuna, awaiting fair wind to gently blow me into harbour, I’m slowly picking my way into the second draft of New Gods and sending off the occasional submission.

As I’ve said on many occasions, it’s a strange life being a writer. You’re constantly sculling from one manic phase to another, trying to cram as much real life as you can around the edges. I’m not a believer in some benevolent muse who’s pulling your strings like a puppet; writing is much more of a habit, even a struggle, than a gift. Still, there are days when the words just won’t come and, despite your best intentions, you feel like it’s just been wasted time.

I’m old now, and resigned enough to be philosophical. Take your time out, take a walk, visit the most excellent Norwich Beer Festival (who can fail to enjoy a brass band rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody with an ale in ‘and?). I’m not a big one for holidays, but I’m treating this time kinda like a brain-off-the-hook session. It’s nice to coast, for once, and not be hammering my muscles against the mighty ocean. And speaking of, you might like to check out this article (http://storyfix.com/help-wanted-hiring-fiction-writers-now) which demonstrates that it’s a mighty ocean indeed.

So for now I’m coasting, doing just a little every day; a sort of busman’s holiday. How long will it go on for? I’ve got no idea. Next week I might be back in the midst of creativity, as abustle as a Dickensian Matron. Who knows, maybe I’ll have had another nibble of interest and I’ll be bouncing around puppy-like, unable to keep from yapping at you all. Or I might have had hopes dashed, thrust into maudlin bitterness and lashing out at the whole industry.

A writer’s life. Weird, unpredictable, where the dull moments are to be treasured and schizophrenia is a constant.

Who will you be today?

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It’s NaNoWriMo! That’s National Novel Writing Month (although it should really be InNoWriMo, as it’s gone exceedingly international) for those not in the know. The aim is to write a 50,000-word book in thirty days; a real challenge and a real achievement for those who get it done. Anybody out there giving it a try? I’d love to hear your stories of success or failure, elation or frustration.

I came across the idea a few years ago when I read the official NaNoWriMo guide – memorably described by my Dad as ‘a good book telling you how to write a bad book quickly’. I’ve never taken part; it’s not for me as I’ve got my ways of working and I reckon I’m doing okay on my own. Still, anything that encourages writing – or reading – is a good thing in my eyes.

Just remember that writing is supposed to be fun – or, if not exactly fun, then at least satisfying. For amateurs like me who don’t get paid for their work (not yet, at least) it’s important that we don’t burn out by setting unrealistic targets for ourselves. If you want to write know that I’m here cheering you on; there’s a great writing community out there and we’re all on your side.

And remember that, if it all goes wrong and you abandon your project half way through, that’s okay too. It’s how one responds to setbacks that really defines us as people. Treat those two imposters, triumph and disaster, etc…

Happy writing!

I invented the Wii

I invented the Wii.

Alright, that’s not entirely true. But I did come up with something surprisingly similar in Chivalry a year or two before the console was released. I also predicted the London riots. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the concept of geostationary orbit.

Yes, we live in interesting times. Technology is developing so quickly that it seems like some idle thought that might make a cute idea for a story is suddenly there on the high street a month or so later. It’s annoying: we missed the moment. What might have been visionary had we been published just a little earlier is now old hat.  No point getting wound up about it. It’s just the way of the world.

But this is an amazing age. It seems as if there never have been so many possible futures. The Cold War paranoia of the 1950s and 60s, that inspired so many seminal authors, has been replaced with a general uncertainty. Are we heading for Utopia or for dystopia? The fear of mutually assured destruction has diminished somewhat and has been replaced by so many questions. Now the villain’s not the Soviets but the planet itself.

All this is fantastic for authors. Never has there been so much inspiration all around. It makes for hard work, of course – all the probability paths, stretching out ahead of us: which do we chose? Which are dead ends? But it’s hard for a writer of speculative fiction to go on the internet or switch on the news and not see something to play with.

How will social media develop in the future? Will we need to leave our homes again? Will military drones and spy-planes become the robotic killers we all fear, or will they be remotely controlled by humans? Either way there are stories there. How will technology affect development, both individually and as a society?

Buggered if I know. But it’s good fun to speculate, even better to take one of these threads and run with it and create your own personal future. Which is, in essence, all that science-fiction is. The only rule is that you have to be consistent within the world you’ve built.

I reckon it’s pretty clear that, just like the classic 50s sci-fi, a lot of the societies created by modern authors will be proved to be ‘wrong’. Remember all the robots that we though would be strolling around today? The underground cities of Asimov? The post-nuclear wasteland that was all that was left of the old world? My favourite ‘error’ of those novels was the way that everyone, every single person, smoked cigarettes – even in worlds set some three hundred years in the future.

Of course, this doesn’t make 50s science-fiction any less memorable and enjoyable. Science-fiction (and, for once, I am including my preferred term ‘speculative fiction’ here) is perhaps the most philosophical of genres. The whole point is to create an imagined future, and that, almost by definition, involves a philosophical viewpoint. And that view almost always reflects to society in which it was written. Thus the McCarthyite terror of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Of course, it’s much, much harder to see these themes at the time. We need hindsight to provide perspective, to filter out the ‘noise’ of other genres and of the many, many exceptions to the rule.

Perhaps the 10s (I assume that’s what we’ll call this decade; I’ve not actually heard anyone use it yet) will prove to be the era without a theme. Perhaps there are just so many possibilities that we end up with a spaghetti-plate of twisting ideas that defy classification. Perhaps the ‘theme’ will be a lack of unification, just a plethora of different thoughts without any sort of commonality. Or maybe we’ll see an age that responds to global austerity by producing a weight of dystopian hells. Or the opposite as we imagine a better world ahead.

As for me, it’s too early in my career to really self-analyse. If there is a common thread in my writing, then I guess it’s one of the ‘odd man out’; and that in itself is influenced by the culture of the 1950s. Not science fiction, but film noir. I’ve never really got on with the perfect protagonist. It’s the Everyman who fascinates me; the idea that it could be you. That anyone can affect the world if thrust into the right (or wrong) situation.

Maybe that’s a reflection of my own subconscious desire to be special, to be different. Am I just revealing my own insecurities through my writing? No idea. I wonder if all this musing, this self-reflective whimsy, is part of what makes me a writer. It’s all what if..? what if…? what if..?

And there’s no better starting point for a story.